The Gift of Travel

Last summer I was in Africa for the first time. I went to Morocco on vacation. It was glorious. This time I’m off to Ghana, West Africa. This is not a vacation as I am traveling with nine students and two adults, but every kind travel feels like vacation to me. A gift. This is a decidedly different kind of Africa than what I experienced in Marrakesh, but it will be glorious, I am sure, in its own way. I have yet to reach a destination that has disappointed me because I learn something new about the world and its people every. single. time.

We’re going to the small village of Breman Essiam as part of Westtown School’s Senior Projects. For two weeks, the students will teach classes to middle school children at Heritage Academy and we will all do service projects  like making bricks  for school repairs and tending Heritage’s new chicken farm. Our students have chosen to teach topics that are close to them and unusual for Heritage kids like creative writing, dance, acting, singing, biology, leadership skills, and a mini robotics/programming course. Continue reading

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Museums of Us

I visited my basement storage room not long ago. It is crammed with boxes, furniture, half-finished crappy crafting projects, pictures, and piles of long forgotten whatnots. It’s a mess that might scare the heartiest of dumpster divers.

I lifted the lid off a certain cardboard box to find A Brief History of High School. Inside were triangular and square folded notes, all so very high-schooley with loopy cursive and secret abbreviations. “Long live Frank ‘n Furter,” read one. (A few of us were obsessed with Rocky Horror Picture Show.) There were my pom poms and cheerleading outfit. I picked up the skirt that sadly now only fits on my big toe. There was my overstuffed senior year scrapbook with funny messages from friends signed, “Friends 4ever” and “Stay cool.” As I flipped through it, a sappy entry from my then-boyfriend caught my eye. It was about how we’d be married one day. I chuckled. Remember how convinced we all were that our first loves would be our only loves? There was a worn copy of The Iliad that reminded me of Mr. Mendenhall, the teacher who taught me to love mythology and literature, taught me how to write, and whose gentle, constant encouragement has kept me putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Memories and people rose from the box like ghosts, one after another. I smiled and wanted to hug their apparitions.

We all have these spaces: tucked-away rooms where stuffed animals languish, where letters and book pages yellow, where the clothes that used to fit mock us, where dusty photo albums await page turning, and where outdated furniture bides its time until the inevitable trip to the dump or college dorm room. People call them junk rooms, but they aren’t. They are little museums of us, and much of that stuff is important artifact. (Well, maybe not that hideous leopard print bean bag over there in the corner.) Continue reading

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Welcome, Welcome Marrakech

We step out of the taxi that has driven us into the Jemaa El Fna, the grand plaza of  Marrakech, inside the great walls of the medina (old town). It is said to be the largest square in Africa. This plaza used to be  the site of public executions. Now it is the thumping heartbeat of Marrakech – a marketplace, a circus, a marvel.

The fiery sun beats down upon the surrounding red sandstone buildings (hence the moniker “Red City”) and pavement amplifying the heat. It’s 108 degrees. My sweat glands seem to be vying for some sort of world record in moisture production.  As the taxi speeds away dodging pedestrians, we are assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of Marrakech. It’s as if all of my senses have been jolted out of a coma.

There is a cacophony – pungis and drums, the clomp clomp of horses pulling caleches, the beep beep of mopeds, shouting in Arabic, and vendors yelling about their goods in various languages. And, since Morocco is a Muslim country, those sounds are drowned by the mesmerizing calls to prayer that echo over the city five times a day. The noise is both unsettling and exhilarating.

My nostrils fill with the smell of Marrakech which is, as far as I can discern, a combination of mint tea, argan oil, amber soap, bubbling tagines, the tanneries, raw meat, horse pies and, maybe, cinnamon or cardamom. And body odor. Probably mine. You’d think it would be an awful stench, but it’s not. It’s a wonderfully odd, exotic aroma that awakens your mind and sets your heart apace. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The Jemaa El Fna

Morning in the Jemaa El Fna

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Man Kind

Men. We women have all sorts of opinions about men. Our opinions are often driven by stereotypes. Stereotypes provide a shorthand that is sometimes confirmed by experience but, as we all know, stereotypes are lazy and  dangerous. Still, we think we know these general characteristics of men:

  • they can’t find anything, especially if it requires moving objects
  • they don’t pay attention to details
  • personal hygiene is elective, especially on weekends
  • they find bodily functions hilarious (ok, they’re right about that)
  • they can’t watch TV without their hands down their pants
  • they are not self aware
  • they think an empath is something from Star Trek
  • they don’t like to talk about feelings

I admit that’s a caricature of men, but you know what I mean. And this is not disparage men – I love ’em. But they have a certain closed-off way. Or so I thought.

When I published my post, Now You Know, about my divorce, I expected that there would be comments from women. I sort of expected (though not in the powerful way it was) to be engulfed in the loving arms of my sisterhood. I expected that women would relate to my experience. What I didn’t expect? The overwhelming response from men.

I was as wrong as a fart in an elevator. As the days passed after I published the post, I was flooded with messages from men. They were supportive, insightful, and tremendously kind. These men took time to share their own heartaches and triumphs. They told me how my words resonated with them. They wished me peace and happiness. They called me brave as often as my female friends.

One old friend from college said simply that I was awesome and he thought he should tell me so. Another offered me his time and phone number in case I wanted to talk it out or just cry. Another told me of his own divorce and how after the pain of it, he emerged happier as did his family. Another told me that I was a “kick ass woman” and an eloquent writer. These kinds of messages came for weeks.

I was gobsmacked and profoundly moved. All the posts and messages I received after I shared the news made my heart swell (and made me cry like a baby), but I was affected slightly more by the men who reached to me because it was such a surprise. Shame on me for not expecting any of it. Shame on me for underestimating the ability of men to feel just as deeply, to care just as much, to offer support in the same degree as my sisters.

Perhaps they were responsive because I didn’t begin my post with “We need to talk,” four words guaranteed to induce a male coma. But seriously, I believe it’s something deeper. Behind those hands-down-their-pants-while-watching-TV postures and the inability to notice a new outfit are tender souls. My words resonated with them because their hearts get broken too. They recognize need, they’re empathic, and they love their friends.

Most significantly, they wanted to tell their stories. They were eager to share. We women don’t corner the market on pain, loss, sensitivity, or even talking about it as much as we’d like to think.

It’s been a profound set of lessons for me. Assume the best of everyone. Don’t fall victim to preconceived notions. Don’t lump people into categories. Offer kindness. Listen closely – everyone wants to be heard.

So here’s to men. Thank you for proving me wrong and for lifting me up in my hour of need. Most of all, thank you for your kindness. And maybe keep your hands out of your pants when you watch TV – I’m pretty sure the remote isn’t in there.

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“You should get on eHarmony,” she said, whereupon I burst into flames. Laughter, I burst into laughter. But I may as well have burst into flames because dating might actually kill me.

The last time I had a date Ross Perot was running for president and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back was playing on the radio, when I still had no back. Cell phones and the Internet were embryos in the belly of technology.  A text was was an informational book. My profile was what I looked at in the side mirror. I didn’t have to lie down to zip up my pants. Tweezers were only used for my eyebrows. It was a simpler time.

“Where are you going to meet a man, if not on the Internet?” she asked. It’s a fair question, the answers to which are: not in bars (all respect to the transformative powers of beer goggles), not at work (awkward), not at the gym (what’s a gym?), not at the dog park (too much crotch sniffing), and not in the grocery store (in spite of what every romantic comedy wants you to believe, people don’t meet while fondling melons).

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Now You Know

You’d never know something was broken. You’d never know about the tears because they fell behind the bathroom door, in the car, in the woods in the rain, and high upon a mountain trail.  You’d never know about the sharp edges of anger, resentments, and crippling fear that were eventually smoothed by introspection, acceptance, and action. You’d never know this was years in the making. How would you know? I never said a word.

I am good at not telling people personal things, and I’m very good at compartmentalizing my life. Those tears I cried? Mopped up right quick before my children or anyone else saw me or before I got to work. Anger and resentment? Boxed up and stored neatly behind a wall of work, responsibilities, and friendships. I covered up my internal life by letting my external life continue to be the wonderful thing that it is. I covered it up with humor, my low-brow savior. I did things with my kids. I traveled. A lot. I dug into my work. I like to have fun and be positive, so I kept the negative out of the equation for years, even with those who know me well.  I guess I wanted to shield them from what I thought would be messy conversations and from a messy me.

There finally came a time that not telling the truth was too much to bear. Not only did I become weary of being a liar by omission, but also it’s simply exhausting. I felt trapped by my self-imposed charade and stooped by the weight on my shoulders. Continue reading

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Hot or Not

I am hot. I am so hot that when I walk into a restaurant people stop to marvel at my hotness. Their eyes take in the rivulets of sweat seductively inching their way down my décolletage. My cheeks are ruddy with a sensual glow. I glisten with with droplets of sexy on my brow. I take a cocktail napkin, proffered by a handsome waiter staring longingly at my dewy countenance, and delicately dab at the moisture collecting on the back of my neck. The spell of onlookers is broken by my louder-than-need-be query, “IS IT HOT IN HERE OR IS IT JUST ME?”  And then I realize that the stares aren’t because I’m hot, but because I’m HOT. I see their furrowed brows and perplexed expressions as they wonder how a person exerting exactly zero energy can produce such a copious amount of sweat. I am not hot after all. My brain readjusts to the news flash: flop sweat isn’t sexy.

A “hot flash” should mean a good-looking guy opening up his trench coat, but it really means a woman of a certain age being overcome by a heat so intense that it could only be produced by the surface of the sun. Of course this happens without warning, often in public. I’m trying really hard not to lament this bizarre and unfortunate fact of aging, but it’s hard to ignore raging cases of swamp butt. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is.)  It’s hard to ignore the night sweats that make you awaken to drenched sheets and pillows. (Not to be confused with the George Clooney dreams.) Continue reading

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